For at least the past year and a half, I’ve been thinking hard about the relationship between political incivility and digital communication networks. (That’s partly what led me into the collaborative journal special issue on trolling). It’s hard to wade into this area without taking one of a few fairly predictable normative positions – where, as Susan Herbst points out, “things are worse” or “they have ever been thus and stop whining” are no less common for being practically unverifiable.
Ungrounded reflection tends to lead most quickly in these normative directions. I knew I had to talk to people, and what’s more I wanted to. At first I was drawn to celebrity – Press Gallery journalists and federal politicians. But then I worked out that people in those positions are actually partly sheltered from the most dramatic effects of the changes that have occurred in political communication concurrently with the mass uptake of Internet technologies and, more recently, social media.
So I wound up doing some “deep hanging out” with a selection of the hardest-working people in political communication – the people who moderate news websites and the people who answer phones, emails and run social media accounts on behalf of politicians. I have recorded many, many hours of conversations with these folks in the last few months that I’m still working through. The more complete version of my reflections will be in a book, the manuscript for which I’ve begun working on.
Yesterday, though, I had to produce an abstract for a conference I hope to attend next year. (I won’t name it here, because I am still under consideration). Consider this a snapshot of my thinking to this point on the whole topic. Something that gives some kind of flavour of what I’m now thinking about following those conversations. Any feedback would, as always, be welcome.
The Dark Side of Digital Political Communication? Agonism and Affect Sinks.
Twenty years after the first publication of Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Communities founded a certain strain of optimism in Internet studies, it is still common for scholars to hail each new generation of Internet technology, or even individual platforms, as the redeemers of a fallen democracy. More recently, a range of scholars have begun to listen more closely to the incivility which is the darker counterpoint of Internet history.
My research on online incivility reveals that while the Internet has revealed our politics as agonistic, our institutions are still geared to a predigital liberal constitutionalism that functionally depends on extensive, persistent areas of consensus, not least in procedural matters. Indeed, the consolidation of neoliberal governance has meant that the opposite to an accommodation of agonistic politics has occurred: many areas of politics and government have been depoliticised, and removed from the sphere of democratic scrutiny and dissension (e.g central banks’ conduct of monetary policy) (Hay, 2007). But the attempt to evacuate political conflict from areas of government does not make political passions go away (Chantal Mouffe has long argued that policy convergence and attempts at depoliticisation can instead give rise to populisms which react to the absence of debate on key issues by attacking the political system as a whole).
In these circumstances, front-line workers in our political institutions act as “affect sinks” for the political feelings which have been loosened by “communicative capitalism” (Dean 2009) but which struggle to find their destination. (The metaphor here refers to the heat sinks that allow electronic systems like computers to function) For now, these workers struggle to remove energy from the political communication system, and thus disproportionately bear the costs of agonistic politics. A more sustainable polity will have its institutions redesigned to accommodate the political conflict that we must learn to see not only as unavoidable, but as constitutive of democracy.
This paper is based on a study of those working at the friction points of digital political communication. Drawing on interviews with comment moderators on mainstream news websites, and others working as electorate officers or staffers for Members of Parliament, I show how political communications systems are approaching something of a structural crisis. Those working in public-facing roles struggle to deal with the large volumes of communication that digital technologies allow citizens and campaigning groups to send in contentious times. They also perform difficult emotional labour in dealing with the tone of some of the communication they receive, at a time when a weakening mass media has lost its capacity to moderate the tenor of political discourse. Keeping faith with the commitment these workers share to facilitating public communication means not advocating restrictions on people’s ability to comment. But I do suggest that restructuring the way in which we ask people to deal with public communication in these roles, as well as reframing public expectations, should be our most urgent priority in rebuilding sustainable democratic polities.